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Libya's Dbeibah seeks calm after electricity protests

Tyres burnt at a road blockade during overnight protests in the Libyan capital Tripoli
— Tripoli (AFP)

Libya's Tripoli-based government sought on Monday to quell public anger over chronic power cuts, devoting its weekly meeting to the electricity sector and admitting it had underestimated the problem.

The meeting followed a night of angry protests across the capital, where masked youths set car tyres alight and blocked roads.

A further demonstration had been planned for Monday afternoon to demand long-awaited elections, but organisers cancelled it, saying they did not want to be associated with possible acts of vandalism.

Despite their country sitting on Africa's largest oil reserves, Libyans regularly experience 18-hour power cuts, fuelling public anger that has piled pressure on both the Tripoli-based government of Abdelhamid Dbeibah and an eastern-based rival administration.

On Friday night, protesters had stormed the seat of the House of Representatives, based in the eastern city of Tobruk, ransacking its offices and torching part of the building.

In both Tripoli and the main eastern city of Benghazi, the cradle of the 2011 uprising, thousands took to the streets to chants of "we want the lights to work".

Libyans protested on July 1 on Martyrs' Square in Libya's capital Tripoli, against the political situation and dire living conditions

Some brandished the green flags of the regime of dictator Moamer Kadhafi, who was killed in a 2011 NATO-backed uprising that plunged the country into over a decade of violence and wrangling among what is now a deeply entrenched yet divided political elite.

"Nobody can deny the right of the people to go out and protest and to demand elections," Dbeibah told his cabinet on Monday.

The government "didn't take the electricity crisis seriously", he said, adding that resolving it would take longer than expected.

He announced however that three power stations were to open in July, two in the west and one in the east.

Planning minister Mohamed Zaidani said some $2.96 billion had been spent on the electricity sector since 2013.

- 'Kleptocracy and corruption' -

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for calm, but UN-mediated talks in Geneva last week aimed at breaking the stalemate between rival Libyan institutions failed to resolve key differences.

Presidential and parliamentary elections, originally scheduled for last December, were meant to cap a UN-led peace process following the end of the last major round of violence in 2020.

But voting never took place due to several contentious candidacies and deep disagreements over the polls' legal basis between the rival power centres in the east and west.

A burnt vehicle outside the House of Representatives in the eastern city of Tobruk, seen on July 2, 2022, after angry protesters stormed the building, ransacking its offices and torching part of it

The crisis deepened this year as parliament, elected in 2014 and backed by eastern strongman Khalifa Haftar, appointed a new government to replace Dbeibah's.

But the interim premier has refused to cede power except to an elected administration.

On top of the political deadlock, Libyans' living standards have been hit hard by price hikes on food imports due to the war in Ukraine.

Meanwhile supporters of the rival administration led by former interior minister Fathi Bashagha have shut down several oil facilities since April as leverage in his power struggle with Dbeibah.

Libya expert Jalel Harchaoui told AFP that "kleptocracy and systematic corruption" were rife in both eastern and western Libya.

For normal Libyans, the year "has been extremely painful" because the country "imports almost all its food and the Ukraine war has hit consumer prices", Harchaoui said.